U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake has a secret. A fair number of the Arizona Republican’s colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives actually like him — or at least they tell him that.
At times, that would appear hard to believe. Republicans and Democrats alike frequently rebuke him on the House floor as C-SPAN records their bursts of seemingly righteous outrage.
Since May 2006, Flake has had a tradition of verbal confrontations. The fourth-term congressman regularly lectures his colleagues during appropriations debates for seeking earmarks — federal money to pay for thousands of endeavors with marginal, if any, national significance.
House members fire back, and Flake endures it.
“There are a lot of people who privately will come to me and say, 'I hope you succeed. I’m sick of it. I could fire three staffers who do nothing but earmarks,’” he said.
The Mesa resident and father of five sat down with a Tribune reporter at Macayo’s Depot Cantina restaurant in Tempe to discuss his zeal for eliminating earmarks. He also talked about his proposal for immigration reform; the role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in government; and growing up on a ranch in Snowflake, which incidentally, was named in part after his great-great grandfather.
Question: Why have you focused so much of your energy on eliminating earmarks?
Answer: It always bothered me, the pork barrel spending that goes on. It was an issue for me before I got to Congress. I thought Congress was doing too much of it. But really, the contemporary practice of earmarking is pretty darn recent. What Republicans did is ... they democratized the process.
They’ll tell you that earmarking has been around forever, but it’s just been the (Appropriations Committee) chairman and a few well-appointed members that have been doing it. They brought it to the masses you might say. Now, I don’t think it’s right when the chairmen do it, but letting everyone do it doesn’t improve the practice.
Q: How do you respond to critics who say you’re chasing headlines?
A: I had hoped that transparency would be enough, but as long as people aren’t ashamed when they get earmarks for a teapot museum or for a prison museum in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., that you and I are paying for, as long as you have members stand up and proudly say, “Yes, I got an earmark for that,” transparency isn’t enough. Shame doesn’t work if you can’t be shamed.
Q: So is immigration reform finished for the year?
A: Yes. In fact, somebody ... was saying this would be a good issue for a Democratic president’s second term.
Q: Republican state Rep. Russell Pearce, who opposes your position on immigration reform for being soft, has formed an exploratory committee on running against you in 2008. Your thoughts?
A: I’ve always assumed I’ll have an opponent. It might as well be Russell.
Q: How does immigration reform play in your district?
A: I have very smart constituents and they understand that you can’t solve this with a slogan.
Q: Presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently got upset with a radio interviewer after repeated questions about his religion.
A: I thought he handled it pretty well. It must be frustrating for him to continue to get those questions.
Q: Can a Mormon running for president get a fair shake?
A: Sure. As he goes through the campaign, the questions that people have will be answered. If the church dictated who we support or what we do, I think you’d have all LDS members lined up behind Mitt Romney. I’m not. I’m supporting John McCain. Jon Huntsman, the governor of Utah, is supporting McCain.